Nick Dougherty will celebrate his 23rd birthday on Tuesday with a practice round alongside Ernie Els prior to the BMW Championship at Wentworth Club – but even that delicious prospect would be eclipsed if the precociously talented Liverpudlian lands the Nissan Irish Open title at Carton House Golf Club.
Dougherty swallowed the disappointment of Manchester United’s FA Cup Final defeat by Arsenal to card a smooth five under par 67 for a nine under par total of 207 and a two stroke lead over rookie Oliver Wilson and last week’s runner-up David Howell.
Wilson fired a superb 66 – equalling the new course record set earlier in the day by South African Titch Moore – to finish on 209, while fellow Englishman Howell maintained his fine run of form with a round of 69. Ireland’s Padraig Harrington (68) and Darren Clarke (69) are on 213 and 214 respectively and are still not out of contention.
However, very little upsets Dougherty – he would need to be thick skinned as ‘Scouser’ supporting the red side of Manchester – and he said: “I enjoy the feeling of playing with a lead. I like to see my name at the top of the leaderboard. I doesn’t faze me and I don’t start panicking. You play your own golf ball and you make the most of it.
“I think it helps that I know I can win in stiff competition. It gave me a lot of confidence winning in Singapore and that helped me today. It’s been a while since I’ve had a sniff of winning again and I really enjoyed it out there.”
With six birdies and just one dropped shot, Dougherty went a long way towards adding to the Caltex Masters, Presented by Carlsberg, Singapore, title he won in January, and confirmed the former Walker Cup winner as one of the most gifted of The European Tour’s young brigade.
He added: “It would be a nice early birthday present ahead of Tuesday. It would be lovely to win this event and great going into this important part of the season. I am playing with Ernie on Tuesday as well and I am looking forward to chatting with him.”
Great Britain’s recent Walker Cup successes received another boost when 24 year old Wilson emerged as a title contender in his first season on The European Tour. Assisted by the rarity of two eagle twos in the space of three holes (he holed out with a nine iron at the 11th and drove the green at the 13th) Wilson made a notable move through the field.
“I was just kind of plodding along when I holed my nine iron from 139 yards then tapped in for an eagle two holes later. That got me going and I came home in 31 for a score I wouldn’t have thought was possible when I played here in practice” he said.
It has been a decent few days for Wilson, who hails from Mansfield but owns a home in Augusta, the American town in which he went to college. Last Sunday his tee shot at the 18th hole earned him a spanking new Jaguar car to replace his mum’s Alfa Romeo, which he had been driving. Now, an even bigger prize is within his scope.
He said: “It’s tough. I’ve got a little more at stake than some players out there. They have won out on Tour and I am trying to get to that stage. I just have to press on and try not to mess up and make stupid mistakes. I am getting more comfortable with the situation.”
Howell, who lost to Thomas Björn in a play-off for The Daily Telegraph Dunlop Masters last Sunday, started unusually hesitantly in the third round with a couple of bogeys, but struck back forcibly with three successive birdies from the seventh before playing the back nine in one under par.
South African Andrew McLardy is tied for fourth alongside Portugal’s Jose-Filipe Lima and joint halfway leader, Stephen Dodd of Wales, on 211 while Harrington and another Ryder Cup stalwart, José Maria Olazábal are among a group of six players on three under par.